Monthly Archives: October 2018

HONOUR Park Theatre, N4

LOVE’S PRECEDENCE AND CRUELTY

 

      George is a journalist-intellectual, award-winner, amiably vain and sixtyish..  He  twinkles for England,  with much black-rimmed-specs-play,  when being  interviewed by an ambitious young graduate, Claudia.   At home is his wife Honor, laughingly at ease with  him, the pair exuding long-accustomed affection and joking about an old friend who has left his wife for a young girl and, ridiculously,  goes out clubbing with her (“He’s so old they think he’s a performance artist”).  Claudia the interviewer  comes to lunch:  unsuspicious, Honor talks about their long marriage and how – charmingly –  enjoying sex becomes as much to do with memory and “knowing what each other used to be”.  

     

        But Claudia is on navel manoeuvres,  casually baring a bellybutton in the next interview session, letting her hair hang loose,  making her questing intellectual chat daringly intimate.  George succumbs.  and  announces to his baffled wife that he is leaving. So  begins the to- -and-fro of pain and disillusion,  adjustment and remorse.  And the play asks   hard questions about the primacy of the heart and the usefulness of dull old virtue. 

  

  It’s an old story indeed –  and an artfully updated 1995 play by Joanna Murray-Smith –  but so beautifully  performed in Paul Robinson’s austerely set production that it feels very up to date.  Its forensic examination of love , exploitation and the male-female balance enthrals, amuses and prods painfully at the emotional culture of today.  Henry Goodman is superb as the donnish George:    vain in his early self-possession, defensive in his headlong passion, wounded at last and  dryly saddened.  Imogen Stubbs is magnificent too as Honor:   she has a powerful capacity to portray love’s huge pain  yet hold within it a kind of surprise :  her finely timed humour hits hard at moments , and in extremis she can kick the furniture over with whirling force.   

 

      As for Katie Brayben  as Claudia, she is suitably dismaying in her icy, juvenile intellectual ambition and her very modern  feminist ruthlessness:  she sees no problem in  luring a husband from a woman she considers less worthy because of her loyal wifeliness and lesser career. She is brutal: not  so much MeToo as the MeFirst .   Her worship of her own sexual allure is coldly selfish,   and she  snaps “I don’t plan to give up anything for anyone”. 

 

    In sweet softer contrast to her damaged cleverness is the daughter of the wrecked marriage, Natalie Simpson’s  Sophie:   defiantly furious with her father, accusing her mother,   then  crumbling at the loss of safe familial warmth. 

     There are good laughs, not least the gloriously predictable moment when George rashly criticises Claudia’s writing for lack of nuance, and when she is horrified by his boyish dream to sail round the world with her instead of being a power-couple.   But at the play’s heart is the question even she finally understands enough to ask.  Why against fairness, loyalty and gentler loves,  does passion think it can take precedence?

 

  box office 0207 870 6876  to 24 nov  

rating four    4 Meece Rating

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A VERY VERY VERY DARK MATTER Bridge, SE1

NOT SO VERY

 

  A wooden box swings, pendulum-regular, in a peerlessly spooky attic of Halloween horror,  designed with glee by Anna Fleischle .   It is inhabited. Difficult, says its captive (using the unaccountable cowboy tones of Tom Waits)  to hang yourself when you are shut in a 10 ft box with one foot sawn off and no rope or laces.   Hans Christian Andersen, downstairs,  receives plaudits for  reading aloud – with some unfamiliar stumbles – The Little Mermaid.  He comes up to tell the captive – a Congolese female pygmy he calls Marjorie – to make the next story she gives him upbeat.  No  more “cripples dying in the snow”. Otherwise he might saw off her other foot.   Every other word in their conversation is ‘fucking’ or “cunt”, though she at least is crisply intelligent ,whereas Hans is a stumblebum (who does stumblebums better than Jim Broadbent , eh ?  OK, he is sometimes genuinely funny despite the text’s  lazy limitations).  

 

 

 Hans is under stress  because two bloodstained time-travelling Belgians from the future are trying to prevent themselves being killed in that future by “Marjorie” , whose family they slew during King Leopold II’s appalling 1880s genocide.   Luckily she has a haunted concertina with a hidden machine gun,  in case they come for her while Hans is visiting Charles Dickens.  Who he confuses with CharlesDarwin, but who also got his tales from a captive but creative Congolese pygmy.  Dickens’ wife and small children, by the way,  also eff and blind a lot, which may be lazy dialogue but  is handy because it proves that -in defiance of increasingly compelling suspicion on my part  -Martin  McDonagh’s new absurdist play  is not just a string of dated Monty- Python sketches.   Its more modern: a sweary  gross-out horror fantasy , a cheese-dream for intellectual literati.

 

 

         You might enjoy it.  Matter of taste.   Dress it up  perhaps as a solemn metaphor about colonial guilt and exploitation.  Or go Freudian and decide that Marjorie is the dark  inner side of any tormented artist.  Alternatively just shrug. I did.  It felt lazy and silly in equal parts.    The brightest aspect   , though, should be celebrated:   it is a remarkable, assured, tough and sharpwitted professional debut for Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles playing the Congolese captive. She even gives it edges of proper emotion,  despite occasionally having to mime to that unaccountable cowboy Waits  voice. 

 

 

    So OK, glad she got the gig.  And mirth matters, wherever it is found, so glad too that quite a few of the audience laughed.  Though rather tellingly,  they never laughed never as heavily  as at a theatreworld  in-joke about German directors.   By the way, McDonagh in his Mr McNasty mood adds a really  unpleasant, and wholly gratuitous, little tale of a conjoined twin who dies slowly, deaf and blind,  of rigor mortis when his sibling’s throat is cut.  But hey, it’s dark comedy, innit?  Sick, man!

 

box office  www.bridgetheatre.co.uk   to 6 Jan

rating two  2 meece rating

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THE WILD DUCK Almeida, N1

LOVE,  LIES AND THE PAIN OF TRUTH

 

   Is it better to live in a lie,  a happy story,  or to admit the messy sinful truth?  Should you  assume that every person you meet is the worst part of themselves, even if there’s evidence of that worst?   

    

This is Ibsen,  so you know it won’t end too well. If there is a poisoned secret it will come out, if a gun it will be fired, and the sins (and sicknesses) of the fathers will fall on the children.   There will also be a metaphor, in this case a wild duck kept tame in the attic alongside a few rabbits , pigeons and old Christmas trees.  Old Ekdal,  broken by his business partner’s treachery and a prison term, likes to go up there and play at hunting.  The duck was winged one day by the wicked partner,  and legend says that when wounded,   a wild duck dives deep and holds on to the weeds until it drowns. But a dog retrieved it, and Ekdal’s son James  keeps it because his daughter Hedwig loves it. They’re all wounded, clinging on in the deep.  All their stories are broken-winged.

 

  Director Robert Icke, most ingenious of re-framers and refreshers, presents this classic of pain and lies with a touch of meta-theatre as Kevin Harvey’s  Greg -son of the corrupt rich partner – arrives on the bare stage with a microphone to inform us, with a touch of patronage, that when he wrote it in 1884  Henrik Ibsen had a secret  illegitimate child,  so this  underlies his sense of lies growing like tumours.  He adds that since the original play is in Norwegian and all translations are a sort of untruth, there is no point us expecting the ‘true’ version.   Props are at first picked up from the front row;   at various moments he, or other characters, will use that mic again to offer bits of narrative or stage directions.  Cards on the table:   I get a bit irritable at such devices, and didn’t quite buy the parallel between deep family lies and theatre itself.  

  

 

    But it pays off,  not least because Greg proves to be a walking truth-bomb himself, and in the final moment gets the contumely such irresponsible truth-tellers sometimes deserve.   And the emotional core of the play is beautifully, tenderly, sadly rendered:   true to the playwright, with all Ibsen’s fin-de-siecle desperation to blow apart 19c secrecies  and grope painfully towards a more honest society.  Most of it – as items of furniture turn up – take us to the household of the ruined Ekdal’s son James, his wife Gina and their daughter, the enchanting and beloved twelve year old Hedwig  (on press night Clara  Read, superb).  

 

        Edward Hogg gives James a brittle energy: fragile, eager, optimistic but wounded and ineffectual,  resenting the secret subsidy from his father’s old enemy and trying not to believe in it.    Lyndsey Marshal is superb as Gina:  she has her own secret, indicated by occasional malapropisms that create an odd unease.  When she says “men need something to abstract themselves with” and is corrected to “distract”, we pick up the other meaning.    Nicholas Farrell is touching as the old ruined hunter abstracting himself from reality with the gun in the attic.     The strength and love of family, soon to be shattered by revelations and heredity, is intensely affecting, the intermittent scene-change grabbing of the microphone taking nothing from its illiusion of reality.  Actually,  it is even more poignant to feel that the players are helplessly manipulated by Ibsen, the way  we all are by life.   The rising tension near the end is almost unbearable.  

    

      And although until the final five minutes one might  think designer Bunny Christie got away with providing nothing but a few chairs and tables, you eat your words when a black screen rises on the world above,  and the bitterest of fairylights.

 

box office  0207 359 4404  to 1 Dec

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

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THE MARINER Touring

ALONE ON A WIDE, WIDE SEA 

    

    The Rime of the Ancient Mariner may be studded with overfamiliar quotations,  but taken in its entirely,  has power to disturb .  It is about guilt, terror, hallucination, terror, “the nightmare death-in-life” and prescient sense of human vandalism of the natural world.  It yearns for forgiveness and the power to pray.    It came, after all,  from a man  brilliant,  revolutionary in his politics and sexual morality,  possibly bipolar,  a tricky husband , quarrelsome  friend and opium addict. 

         

      Now,  on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 246th birthday,  these Eastern counties are seeing a tour of this fascinating reimagining, from letters and records,   of the way the poem resonates through the man’s own life. Pat Whymark writes and directs;   her partner Julian Harries plays the Mariner.  Their tiny company Common Ground is better known round here for cheerful Christmas-show  spoofs  but this is more ambitious and  – despite some good dry laughs at the poet’s behaviour – more serious.   We find the poet (Richard Lounds) in lodgings in 1810,  away from his family and estranged from some friends,  doing his lectures on Shakespeare and Miltonwith the laudanum-bottle on the table,  the landlady chatty but exasperated,   and Thomas de Quincey (Anthony Pinnick) his loyal and exasperated friend and fellow opium-eater,  occasionally dropping in.    

 

 A series of flashbacks gives us his fairly unhappy marriage to Sarah and her grief at his neglect (when one of their infants died, he refused to come home but continued a walking tour of Germany and told her to “Bear it with Fortitude”).    There is also an amusing glimpse of the Wordsworths, William (Pinnick again) and his besotted sister Dorothy;  we get a nice evocation of how annoying they must have been to Sarah Coleridge, especially when her husband  cries “William and Dorothy are like food and drink to me” and points out that she lacks  “high sensibilities”  and that Dorothy is “perfect electrometer of feeling” .  

 

      Indeed the two women in multiple parts – Eloise Kay and Emily Bennett – are important not only in contrast to the self-obsessed Coleridge but because Whymark, also a composer,  gives the piece a hypnotic, disturbing vocal and instrumental score (the two women and Pinnick play guitar , serengi and violin).  Sharp harmonies and eerie sounds create almost as much atmosphere as the poem itself.  They sing verses from it,  and  from a sloping deck and ragged sail stage left,  the whole narrative is performed by the rather magnificent Julian Harries.  Each section reflects a time of  dissolution, temper or torment for Coleridge,   at his desk stage right or with the others at the centre.  Projections create sea, sky, cloud; but it is Harries’ grey beard and glittering eye that carry it.  

 

     This is one of the problems for the writer,  and for Lounds as Coleridge. As so often, the poet is a lesser creature than his work.  It would take a peculiar brilliance in any actor to make him more than mainly, frankly,   annoying.   Some trimming of the script showing moments from his life would  help (and may yet, tours always develop).   The saturnine elegance of Pinnick’s de Quincey certainly does help, though.  Lounds is best when at his most agonized, not least because that is when the Mariner Harries (not a bad electrometer-of-feeling himself) is at his most tormentedly stormy. In an excellent late moment the mariner explains to us why he bearded the poor flustered wedding-guest:  

 

     “I pass, like night, from land to land; I have strange power of speech; That moment that his face I see, I know the man that must hear me: To him my tale I teach.”.   Harries fixes the wayward poet with his glittering eye:  out of his own lines Coleridge stands rebuked.  Nice.  

 

Touring Mouse widetouring mainly one-night stands:
  box office https://www.commongroundtc.co.uk/shows    to 11 Nov.   Bures, Southwold, Aldeburgh next 

rating four     4 Meece Rating

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TROILUS AND CRESSIDA Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

LECHERY AND TREACHERY,  MACHISMO AND METAL…

 

  ‘I had forgotten” said a companion as we staggered out, deafened by the final outbreak of crazed metallic drumming,  “how syphilitic that play is”.  Not a bad word for it:  or try bitter, angry, violent, messy:  more than almost any other Shakespeare play it rages at irredeemable human stupidity and anarchic unreason.  Which makes it curiously modern:  Jarry or Beckett would nod approval.   The director Gregory Doran helpfully gives us in the programme some of the great John Barton’s notes, accepting that it is “comical, tragical, historical, mythical, political, ..cynical, romantic, obscene, Homeric, medieval, intellectual, poetic and absurdist”.   

 

      Set in an endless, pointless war,   the sheer mess of its politics and its refusal to let any character be a hero or an innocent make you leave feeling oddly braced.  That, combined with deafeningly dramatic outbreaks of percussive music by Evelyn Glennie on any number of bizarre strikeable instruments,  not to mention an  appearance by about ten giant trumpets mounted on a bicycle.   Oh, and the fact that it opens with the crashing arrival of Greek and Trojan warriors on roaring motorbikes: you expect Meat Loaf to descend from the ceiling any minute.  Though when a cage does descend from a crazy metallic muddle of random discarded armour hanging overhead, it is a cool narrator  to  inform us that we are seven years in to a war between the Greeks and Troy,  after the abduction of Helen by the Trojan Paris.

 

  The political action begins with each set of princelings debating what to do – Adjoah Andoh’s elegantly creepy Ulysses laying out the problem at inordinate length  on the Greek side, and the Trojans doing their best to ignore the raving, raggedly demented but unfortunately accurate warnings of Cassandra (Charlotte Arrowsmith, truly terrifying, gulping and screaming in prophetic terror).   But before that, we have noted the love affair of the title:  Oliver Ford Davies as a benignly obscene Pandarus furthering his niece’s relationship with Troilus, which is going to help spark the final disaster.  Gavin Fowler and Amber James are touching in their all too brief conjunction,  but so is Pandarus in his way:   his shock at realizing that Cressida is a prisoner-exchange to the Greek camp seems wholly genuine: he is one of the more well-meaning of the play’s multiple misjudgers.   

  

      It does take patience sometimes: dense intricate speeches with the senselessness of the war ever more apparent. But Doran’s meticulous production works all the laughs too: Andy Apollo’s glorious bare-chested Achilles avoiding single-combat with Hector by hanging out in his tent and doing weights and press-ups with his sweet bare-tummied lover Patroclus (actually the sanest of the characters). And there’s  Sheila Reid’s tiny, mocking, gnomelike Thersites taking the mick out of them all,  funny in her irrepressibility  then suddenly creepy in  gloating voyeurism as Cressida betrays her lost love.  There’s joy too in  Theo Ogundipe as a gloriously preening macho Ajax, up for any fight.   The theme of reputation recurs,  Troilus and Cressida vowing not to become eternal  by-words for infidelity,  and golden-haired Achilles always worried about whether he is worshipped enough. 

 

 

        But as the story darkens with Cressida’s capture there is real, visceral, obscene horror in the extraordinary scene where each of her Greek captors demands a kiss.  For this is a play about women as pawns of war, trophies,  objects of derisive desire.  It feels horribly current.  The terrible story sweeps you up: the vigour, the clamour, the extraordinary racket of macho metallic madness,  shield and sword echoing Glennie’s extraordinary score and at last nightmare .  When Achilles is driven to fight,  his  “myrmidons” are  half-ludicrous and half alien, dark horned creatures right out of Dr Who.    It is a puzzle, an oddity, a cry of rage :  it builds to a climax you don’t forget.    

          

    box office  http://www.rsc.org    uk  to 17 November

rating four      4 Meece Rating

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WISE CHILDREN                  Old Vic SE1

ROMPING FABLE OF A GREASEPAINT CENTURY

     

       Twins, three sets of them,  in a dynasty of performers from the 1880s onward: a theatrical boarding-house with a heart-of-gold harridan landlady,  lies and confusions about paternity (“it’s a wise child that knows its own father”), and  a touch of incest and  child abuse.   Dauntless old age  and memory, song and dance acts, betrayals.  Angela Carter’s last novel – a strange, fantastical, vigorous but delicate feminist imagining of a century of high and low performers –  beguiled  Emma Rice for a long time.   So  her new residency with the Old Vic opens with her adaptation of the book,  and shares its name with the new company she has founded after the wounding debacle downriver at the Globe.  A nice name for a Rice ensemble: makers of theatre do indeed need to be wise as serpents yet innocent as doves…

 

         Old Carter fans (and fresh ones fizzed up this year by radio 4s versions) will recognise the writer’s world, though not quite her tone.    Rice is broader, less delicate in imagination, more deliberately rorty.   So we  meet,  on their 75th birthday,  our narrators  Dora and Nora :  erstwhile chorines, startled to be summoned to the 100th birthday of Melchior tge legendary actor-manager and Edwardian ham.  He is their father, but disowned them and left them to think they belonged to his lepidopterist businessman brother Peregrine.  Who has actually fathered Melchior’s supposed younger twins by his now- discarded paralysed wife, now cared for by Dora and Nora  who call her “Wheelchair”. Got it so far?  Keep up at the back! 

 

      Actually, it isn’t hard , because for all the intricacies the narration – mainly by old Dora, who is played by Gareth Snook  and ends up looking disconcertingly like the Rev Richard Coles if he had been wearing a butterfly kimono on Strictly – is fairly ploddingly linear.  It is enlivened by flashbacks of the younger twin sisters,  at one point intriguingly played by Melissa James and a genderswitched Omari Douglas , only their clothes being identical.  Though that doesn’t get noticed by the blue-eyed lover who Nora gives to Dora for a her first night’s sex.  Song and dance numbers of various periods are threaded through,  but though amusing they never exactly move us on.   It’s a circussy, seedily bright-lights world of louche showbiz nostalgia in a world that never quite was: panto, puppetry, comedy sex,  very old pier-end jokes , keep on coming. 

 

      There are actually interesting themes in the book: about the gap between the showgirls’ illegitimacy in both senses, their world of jugglers and speciality acts and red-nose comics despised by those in Melchior’s selfishly triumphant “legit” theatre  (a lot of very very hammy, parodic, almost despised Shakespeare lines are thrown in) .  There’s the sense of the oldest taking most responsibility for the youngest,  of paternal neglect , exploitation of young women and the paltriness of the cardboard crown of Shakespearian grandees.  But none of those things ever seem as if they actually mattered in life.    By the end of the first half I appreciated the laughs and energy and audience whoops – Katy Owen’s Grandma is also great fun – yet felt a curious disconnection,  feeling a fragment of credible emotion or sense of jeopardy.

 

       The second half is better, with one moment at least that jolts you a little.  But while Emma Rice in the Kneehigh years showed she can unpeel emotion –  remember Brief Encounter, Tristan, Rebecca –   somehow it doesn’t take.  Overwhelmed by stage whimsy,  Carter’s strange thread of magical seriousness doesn’t show through.   I wanted to like it more. 

box office 0844 871 7628  to 10 Nov

rating three    3 Meece Rating

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COMPANY. Gielgud, WC2

FOR BETTER FOR WORSE?  FOR FIVE MICE ANYWAY

 

     If you’re going to mess about with a classic but slightly dated Sondheim musical,  be sure to do it brilliantly. Do it like Marianne Elliott.  Get the great Stephen himself on-side,  ask for a few new lyrics, then find a throbbing nerve in the western zeitgeist and give it a good twang. Oh, and be sure to choreograph the funniest seduction , wildest party, and most showstopping display of wedding nerves on any stage anywhere.  And while you’re at it, give Patti LuPone a showstopping chance to snarl out “Ladies Who Lunch”.

  

      Got it? That’s Company, with an enchanting lead, a peerlessly sharp company, bangin’ band , and any number of weird sliding neon-framed rooms by Bunny Christie. Company is the comeback kid, another demonstration that Britain is natural Sondheim country: all  dry wit and laughing resignation

 

       Elliott’s idea was to take the master’s 1970 tale of 35 year old Bobby, whose married friends all think he ought to commit and settl down, but who all in their way are either messed up, patronising or endearingly deluded. But make him Bobbie, because it’s 2018 and we have had the age of the female clock-ticking Singleton,  from Jessica Parker to B.Jones. Then neatly reverse a few other genders in the process.  Brilliant: because while a bachelor midlifer is actually a bit ho-hum-so-what,  a woman with those fading ovaries and atavistic cultural fear of the shelf is already a walking dramatic  crisis. Or may seem so to the dear well-meaning friends. And in the age of gay marriage and heterosexual civil-partnering, it’s coolly up to date.

 

    And goodness, it’s funny and sharp.  Rosalie Craig is perfect as Bobbie, aware of the big 35 – eventually spelt out by the gang in 10ft balloons – but gentle, sane, reasonable, well liked  and not lonely. Until the pressure makes her so and she must wonder if “someone is waiting….”.  She sings like a lark, is immensely moving in “Marry me a little”,and  joins in the gloriously witty choreography (the party scene ensemble contains at least six of the most excruciating adult ‘fun’ games you have ever dodged). Yet she is almost better in her reaction moments, while the peerlessly funny cast members display the joy and horror of the married state. 

 

    There is a Jil-jitsu match (shared hobbies, o the horror) with Gavin Spokes and Mel Giedroyc risking their spines nightly, and a series of vignettes of the sheer oddity of couples, marvellous evocation of their appalling patronising nosiness about poor poor Bobbie: hilarious as the whole cast wander through her bedroom pitying her just as she gets it on with dim-date Andy. And the deathless anthem of bridal nerves , originally female, is given to gay Jamie: Jonathan Bailey hoping to get away from smiley Paul with a despairing “Perhaps – I’ll collapse – in the apse” while a terrifying celebrant bursts for every cupboard in sight.  Bailey steals the show. 

     Patter songs,  scat jazz, ballads, glittering lyrics and elegant musical jokes…aaahh, Sondheim!  It must run forever. And  curiously, it is as comforting a what-the-hell message to us 38-year-wed fogies as to any singleton.  Glorious.

 

Box off. delfontmackintosh.co.uk. 0344 4825138. To 30 March

Rating 5.   5 Meece Rating

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